Mary Ashford, age 20, was found dead at the bottom of a water-filled pit. She had drowned, and while her bloodstained shoe was seen outside the pit, there was little evidence that her death was preceded by any sort of struggle. Nonetheless, the local authorities believed that 24 year-old Abraham Thornton was to blame for her death. The two had met at a party earlier that evening and left together; Thornton had allegedly told an acquaintance that he had already slept with Ashford’s sister and would be adding Mary to his list of conquests — even if it meant his death. (Thornton later denied making such a statement.) Police questioned Thornton, who freely offered that he and Mary were indeed intimate that night. Upon further investigation, authorities discovered that Thornton’s underclothes were bloodstained and his footprints were similar to those seen at the scene of Ashford’s death. He was charged with her rape and murder, and was quickly convicted in the court of public opinion.
But not so in the court of law. His attorneys explained away the blood — Ashford was menstruating and it was her first time with a man — and the workmen who compared Thornton’s boots to the footprints left behind admitted that it rained before they could make such a comparison. Thornton’s defense team painted a strong story regarding his whereabouts at the time of Ashford’s death, giving him such a strong alibi. It was so strong that the judge himself said that it was not possible for a jury to believe his alibi and still believe that Thornton was a murderer. It took the jury only six minutes to deliver a not guilty verdict. The next day, the newspaper headlines were apoplectic about the result, and the public was doubly upset.
If this were a story from last year, that’s where it would have ended. But this happened in 1817 in Great Britain. To modern ears, things were about to get strange.
At the time, Parliament allowed for the victims of crimes or their next of kin (in this case) to appeal a criminal acquittal, acting as a private district attorney of sorts. This runs afoul against current prohibitions regarding double jeopardy (among other things), but that wasn’t the law in England in 1817. Instead, Ashford’s brother William was empowered to hire an attorney (okay, a “solicitor”) and appeal the verdict. With financial support from the enraged public, he did just that, hoping that in the end, Thornton would find himself incarcerated.
But Thornton had an antiquated legal trick up his sleeve too, and threw down the gauntlet — literally. Thornton, while entering his plea before the court, put on a pair of leather gauntlets (perhaps like these?) and tossed another on the ground toward William Ashford’s feet. The accused murderer was challenging his alleged victim’s brother to a duel — because the law allowed him to.
Thornton was invoking his right to a trial by battle, a custom stemming from the Normans nearly a millennium earlier. It was simple: someone accused of a crime and not obviously guilty — Wikipedia says “in the absence of witnesses or a confession” — could settle the matter by duking it out against his accuser. The theory was that the Almighty would ensure that the outcome be the one in line with the goals of a just society — after a lot of bruises, bleeding, and broken bones, of course. And while trial by battle (also called “trial by comabt”) disappeared almost entirely (in Europe, at least) by the 16th century — humanity concluded that incorporeal beings tend not to meddle in the affairs with mere mortals, at least not in cases like these — Parliament never got around to actually revoking the law. So the Ashford v Thornton court allowed it.
William Ashford was no match for the much larger Thornton, so he declined the challenge. Thornton was set free and, a pariah in his community, fled to the United States. He lived another forty-plus years, claiming innocence throughout. As for the right to a trial by battle in Great Britain, Parliament removed it a year after the Ashford court ruled.
From the Archives: Taking a Bullet for Your Client: A really bad way to get your client off from a murder rap.